Is a “Storyline” Patent a Figment of the Imagination?
On November 3, 2005, the U.S. Patent Office published what is purportedly the first “storyline” patent application to be filed in the United States. The term “storyline patent” was coined by the inventor, Andrew Knight, and it means just what it says — a patent for a storyline or plot. Mr. Knight’s first storyline patent application attempts to patent “a process of relaying a story” in which a character remains asleep or unconscious until a particular event occurs and in which the character cannot recall events that occurred during the time period in which the character was asleep or unconscious but in which he or she actively participated.
Mr. Knight also has three other pending and published patent applications for so-called storylines, including the following: a story in which the character faces his or her fear of doing something in reality by doing it first in a virtual reality environment, in which the character subsequently does not realize that he or she is no longer in the virtual environment; a story in which a first character enters a virtual reality believing that he or she is not in virtual reality, in which the first character interacts with a second character and ends up working for a compensation substantially lower than the actual market value for his labor in the non-virtual world; and a story in which a character experiences déja vu that masks an actual event that would have caused the character substantial emotional trauma had the event not been masked.
When reading the abstracts of Mr. Knight’s patent applications, one has the sense that he is pitching screenplays to a Hollywood producer. All of Mr. Knight’s storyline patent applications purport to cover a “process of relaying a story.”
As of the date of this article, the status of all four of Mr. Knight’s published and pending “storyline” patent applications (there may be more unpublished applications) is that each application has been assigned to an examiner, but no Office Action has issued. The applications have been assigned to two different examiners, and it will be interesting to see whether the disposition of the applications is the same. Mr. Knight is clearly pushing an agenda here — in all four applications, he submitted to the patent office last November an article that he had written entitled “A Potentially New IP: Storyline Patents.” The article was published in the Journal of the Patent and Trademark Office Society in November of 2004.
According to Mr. Knight’s website, he is the “inventor” of the storyline patent. Here is how he describes himself: ”With several pending U.S. utility patent applications claiming fictional storylines,
Andrew Knight is the first to attempt to obtain utility patent protection on a
fictional plot.” Mr. Knight has undergraduate and Master’s degrees in Nuclear Engineering, and he received his law degree in 2005. He has clearly wasted no time in trying to make a splash in the legal field.
Although Mr. Knight deserves credit for his creative approach to the law, his efforts are, in this author’s view, a waste of the patent office’s limited resources. While inventors who have developed legitimate inventions typically wait years for the first Office Action, Mr. Knight is further clogging the pipeline with his applications.
In that vein, it is interesting to note that Mr. Knight also has a pending patent application for “a method of profiting by inventing” in which an individual breaks someone else’s invention record. The record for inventing could be anything relating to inventing, for example, inventing the largest number of inventions within a certain period of time, having the largest number of applications filed or patents granted, being able to hold a day job while prosecuting one’s own patent applications, etc. As of the date of this article, all claims relating to the method for breaking the invention record had been canceled from the application, and the current claims relate to a method of holding an invention competition.
In this author’s opinion, the “storyline” patent application exhibits a lack of appreciation for the distinction between copyright and patent law and the decades of jurisprudence addressing the differences between the two. It also blurs the distinction between “authors” and “inventors,” as those terms are used in Article I, Section 8, of the U.S. Constitution. Generally speaking, patents cover functional and useful inventions that advance technology. Copyright protection is intended to prevent someone from copying someone else’s creative work. Mr. Knight is, in effect, attempting to obtain patent protection for something that should only be protected by copyright.
If patents were to be granted for storylines, not only would the patent office be inundated with plots for movies, books, articles and screenplays, but the whole notion of fair use (under copyright law) would be thrown out the window. There is no comparable fair use defense under patent law. It seems to this author that allowing the storyline patent concept to exist would seriously undermine the First Amendment and unnecessarily chill speech in the form of creative works. The United States has already been criticized by some foreign commentators for going as far as it has in allowing software and business method patents; let’s not make ourselves the laughing stock of the world by allowing a new form of patent protection for stories.